Our students are passionate about food. This past week, I was reminded of how that passion can actually support learning.
Our school is participating in NYC’s innovative Participatory Budgeting Program for students, in which the student body is given $2000 to spend on the school, using a democratic process to propose ideas and vote on them. The first thing the students came up with was “better food.” Given that our students are from cultures all over the world, this was not a huge surprise. Through the program, the students learned that spending the money on food would not be a sustainable project; it would result in perhaps one to two meals for the entire school, and then the money would be gone. They quickly moved on to other ideas.
However, the students’ passion about the topic gave me pause. My colleague Asya Johnson, principal of Longwood Preparatory Academy, told me that on days when student attendance is predicted to be low, her school serves a special breakfast.* Due to her school’s large Dominican population, Asya thought of serving one of the most favored dishes in that culture, mangu, a delicious mash of green plantains. The idea was a revelation to me, and given that my own school population is about 50% Dominican, I thought, “How did I not think of that before?”
I was further inspired after reading about LeBron James’s new public elementary school: through love, attention, high expectations, and family partnerships, students previously deemed “low performing” have made strikingly high growth in Math and English. The school provides a pantry to parents, with staples like peanut butter, soup, and cereal. Parents can simply walk into the pantry to get what they need for free. The idea resonated with me deeply: why shouldn’t a school be a full family-care facility that makes life easy for everyone, in the name of supporting children? If we knowingly say, “For some kids, school provides the one predictable meal of the day,” then why not make sure that when kids go home, there’s food?
My school has used food as a motivator. Last year, due to our shared building schedule, our students had a very early lunch period at 10:00 am– more like brunch.** Realizing that our kids would be hungry by the dismissal time of 2:45 and might not want to stay for after-school tutoring, we decided to make an investment in the one thing that might keep our kids in school: pizza.
Last year we spent close to $10,000 on after-school pizza. Our tutoring numbers went up dramatically that year, and our exam results improved as well, in almost all subjects. Sure, that was due to more than pizza– the teachers’ planning and hard work, a peer tutoring program, guidance. But pizza was part of the improvement: come for the pizza, stay for the math.
*New York City schools serve free breakfast every day to all students.
**Our school is on a shared campus with five other schools. As a campus, we rotate our schools’ lunch periods every year in order to ensure that no school gets permanently “stuck” with a very early or very late lunch period.